Small town, big impact: How Canada’s largest federal laboratory, tucked away in rural Ontario has impacted millions around the globe

On November 3, the National Research Universal (NRU) research reactor, one of the Canada’s most productive and impactful science facilities, celebrated the unprecedented milestone of 60 years in operation.

Chalk River

The NRU which is located at the Chalk River campus of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, near the town of Deep River, has delivered major benefits to the health of people around the world, and has enabled many scientific achievements since it began operating in 1957. (For example it helped launch a new branch of physics, neutron scattering, which was recognized with a Nobel Prize.)

Over its life, NRU has produced medical materials used in well over half a billion patient treatments. Those have helped people in 80 countries around the world.

How were all those patients helped? Well, when NRU is operating, the nuclear fission produces trillions of neutrons, which can be used to transform atoms into radioactive isotopes. Those isotopes emit energy in the form of gamma radiation, and that energy has two important uses, improving the health of people across the globe.

One Canadian medical innovation made possible by NRU was the use of gamma rays from an isotope of cobalt to destroy cancerous tumours. A technique first developed in Canada in the 1950’s, this technology is still in use today. Each year 16 million people, many in the developing world, receive life-saving cancer treatment from radioactive cobalt produced in NRU.

Another significant isotope supplied to the world from NRU for many years is technetium which emits a lower energy gamma ray that can be used to create an image of a patient. Approximately 85% of diagnostic imaging procedures in nuclear medicine use this isotope, and many hundreds of millions of patients have benefited from that technology.

NRU was the subject of a recent TEDx talk at Algonquin College in Ottawa this fall, where the NRU’s Director of Operations, Alastair McIvor made the case for the NRU being Canada’s most productive science facility. Learn more by following the links below‎ to both the video and transcript.

How is a nuclear reactor used for science? | Alastair McIvor | TEDxOttawa


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